Before the basketball season began, when he knew the four freshmen on his team would see significant playing time, Forest Hills coach Anthony Amero developed his plan.

“I sat down with my assistant coaches and said ‘First off, we have to make sure the season stays fun for them,’ ” Amero said. “I was very nervous for the pressure they’d be under.”

Not only did the season stay fun, Amero’s four freshmen — guards Brandon Ouellette and Matt Turner, forward Ryan Petrin and center Tanner Daigle — helped extend it. On Saturday, the Tigers (18-3) will play in the state championship for the first time, taking on Jonesport-Beals (17-2) in the Class D title game at 2:45 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.

“We knew it would be a tough season,” Petrin said. “We didn’t expect to win as many games as we did.”

With no seniors and just a few returning players, Amero inserted Ouellette, Petrin and Turner right into the starting lineup, with Daigle a key reserve in the low post.

The plan was to improve as the season went along, maybe win nine or 10 games, and reach the Western Maine Class D tournament for the 12th straight year. After gaining this season of experience, Amero thought the Tigers would be contenders next season.

The Tigers lost the season opener to Vinalhaven, 57-56, and a pair of regular-season games to rival Valley. They have won 14 straight entering the state championship game, and the steady improvement of the freshmen, particularly on the defensive end, is a big reason.

For instance, early in the season, Turner would try to block every shot, as he had in junior high school. He would get into foul trouble, which because of Forest Hills’ lack of depth — the Tigers have eight players — is a no-no. Amero would rather his players surrender an easy layup than foul an opponent and turn the basket into a three-point opportunity.

Over the course of the season, Turner has learned not to jump with every pump fake and to pick his spots when it comes to swatting shots.

“The first five games, I always ended with four or five fouls,” the 6-foot-1 Turner said. “It’s starting to come natural now.”

“The kid can jump out of the gym, but he was getting foolish fouls,” Amero said of Turner. “Teams were getting into the one-and-one early, getting two shots in the first half. He’s really worked hard to make sure he’s not trying to block everything.”

Ouellette is learning how to run the offense, while Petrin has improved at boxing opponents out and playing in the low post.

“I’m dribbling with my left hand better. My jump shot has improved,” Ouellette said.

Turner is second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.9 points per game. Ouellette (8.8 ppg) and Petrin (6.3 ppg) have also provided offense. Daigle, the tallest of the group at 6-3, is learning to play, and Amero has high hopes for him.

“The Daigle kid, I know what he’s going to be next year and the year after,” Amero said.

Alumni are important at Forest Hills, and former Tiger big man Bob Mannix, a 2003 graduate, worked with Daigle in the preseason. When Mannix was back in Jackman last week, he made sure to let Daigle know how much he had improved.

“I’m trying to master the post. I’m getting help from alumni players, my teammates, and you’ve got to hand it to Coach (Amero),” Daigle said.

When the Tigers study film, the freshmen are always there, asking questions. The group won the Pine Cone League middle school title last season, and want to succeed in high school.

The tournament hasn’t intimidated the Forest Hills freshmen at all. Ouellette and Petrin hit a pair of key free throws late in the regional semifinal win over Valley, helping the Tigers overcome and thwart a Cavalier rally when star Evan Worster fouled out with 2:22 left in the game. In the 61-60 come-from-behind win over top-seeded Hyde in the regional final, Turner scored 16 points, helping the Tigers rally from a 19-point deficit late in the third quarter.

In the third quarter of the Hyde game, Amero told Turner to take it to the basket every chance he got.

“He asked me, ‘You want me to shoot?’ I said ‘Yeah, every time,’ ” Amero said. “He just said ‘Awesome.’ “

It’s 110 miles from Jackman to Augusta, so when the Tigers played 10 a.m. tournament games last week, the bus left Forest Hills at 6 a.m. At twenty minutes to six, Amero was in his classroom, going over a few final things, when he heard basketball dribbling in the gym. It was the four freshman, wide awake and playing a quick pickup game.

“They’re playing two-on-two,” Amero said. “They’re gym rats. They’re film rats. That makes things easy for me.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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